By Matt Popchock
Even in the most inclement of late autumn weather, Heinz Field stands out as a beacon of gridiron glory thanks to its distinctive gold seats.
If you’re sitting in one of those seats Saturday evening, you probably won’t want to leave. For years the North Shore, even before those gold seats were built, was a gold mine for each of the 2011 finalists in Double-A.
Aliquippa (12-0) and Jeannette (12-0), the top two seeds in their bracket, respectively, will return with their hard hats to go head-to-head in the 2011 WPIAL Class AA Football Championship at 5:00 P.M.
Perhaps the only drawback is the fact that ROOT Sports’ coverage will be tape-delayed–the game can be seen after its live coverage of Penguins-Canadiens–as the potential exists for this to be the most compelling of the four district title matchups.
Don’t work too hard trying to measure the success of these two programs. By the time you finished counting the glass-encased trophies at both schools, the game might already be over.
Besides, we’ve already done that work for you. This year, following the WPIAL Quarterfinals, 11 undefeated teams were still alive in the football postseason, which had never happened before. But for the two teams in those so-called hard hats, perfection is “old hat.”
After beating Greensburg Central Catholic for the Interstate Conference title, Jeannette celebrated its 16th perfect regular campaign, the most in WPIAL history. Right behind the Jayhawks are the Quips, who earned their 12th by running the table in the Midwestern Conference.
Jeannette is going for its eighth District 7 football crown in its history and first since you-know-who’s senior year. Aliquippa, meanwhile, will be making its 22nd appearance in a championship game, a WPIAL record, and the Quips have already won an unprecedented 13 titles, though number 14 has been, sufficed to say, frustratingly elusive.
In 2008 they avenged a (televised) Week 2 defeat at “The Pit” by upending Beaver Falls 8-6 in the Class AA Final thanks to a special teams score, which began a run of four straight trips to Heinz Field that continues Saturday. But following that last championship victory were a surprisingly one-sided loss to Greensburg C.C. and a turnover-filled loss to South Fayette.
To seize that 14th all-time title, the Quips need to avoid the mistakes made on Steeler/Pitt Panther soil a year ago. They need to matriculate the ball and find a rhythm offensively that has gone missing the last two title games, which won’t be easy to locate against Jeannette’s defense.
The Jayhawks allowed 12.5 points per contest, which ranks sixth in Class AA. A 40-21 blowout of No. 3 seed Seton-LaSalle, one of the classification’s top-scoring teams, at Elizabeth Forward’s Warrior Stadium last Friday marked just the second time all year that defense has allowed more than two touchdowns in a game.
Their lynch pin is Demetrious Cox, one of the top 50 safeties in the country, as rated by MaxPreps. Pitt, Penn State, and Notre Dame are among the Division I programs throughout the country to give him offers, and he did not give us a timetable for his decision when we spoke with him before the playoffs, so there is also still a chance he is reunited with Jordan Hall at Ohio State.
In any event, Cox is dangerous from his outside linebacker spot, and he’s equally dangerous under center, quarterbacking an offense even more intimidating than the Jayhawks’ defense.
They currently average nearly 40 points a game, and Cox, who enters the weekend with 22 total TD’s, ranks among the top five scorers in his classification. He has scrambled for 1,180 yards, averaging over ten per tote, and has completed 58% of his passes for 753 yards while surrendering just two INT’s.
He doesn’t mind throwing to Jordan Edmunds out of the backfield, but Edmunds’ main objective will be to spell Cox and bring balance to the offense. He has racked up 13 touchdowns and over 1,000 all-purpose yards, including 860 on the ground.
The real x-factor in that unit will be Shavonta Craft. If both defenses play to their potential, and the game becomes a battle of attrition, field positioning is important, and Craft is as fleet-footed a kick returner as you’ll see in Class AA. Meanwhile, he averages over 15 yards per pass reception, and has run for more than 700 yards, complemented by 17 total touchdowns.
But no matter how great an athlete Craft is, the Quips won’t be intimidated, because they’ve got plenty of athletes of their own. In fact, the only offense in Class AA that might be more capable than Jeannette’s might be Aliquippa’s, which is averaging an identical 39.3 points per game.
In some ways, its youth will be put to the test against the experience of the Jayhawks’ defense. They’ll have to zero in on sophomore running back Dravon Henry, who has provided leadership beyond his years while running for 1,200 yards, scoring 18 times, and averaging over eight yards a carry.
However, you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t when you face Aliquippa. If Jeannette stacks the line of scrimmage, it theoretically opens things up for the passing game, which has been just as efficient. Mikal Hall enters the weekend third in Class AA with 1,296 yards through the air, and he has only thrown one pick while tossing 16 touchdowns and connecting on 55% of his attempts.
Hall has two significant big-play threats split out to the side; Davion Hall and Kaylan Kenney are each averaging over 20 yards per catch. They’ve combined for 14 TD’s and over 400 yards apiece, while Terry Swanson has emerged as a dependable playmaker as well.
Defensively they all cover the field well and make it difficult for teams to eat up big gobs of yardage. To line up against that squad is to test one’s patience like never before during the course of a season. Aliquippa is yielding a Class AA-best eight points per game, the Quips have held four of their last five opponents under 10 points, and they’ve posted three shutouts in that span.
How deep is that team? Aliquippa was able to rest starters in a Semifinal game, which isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence. Jeannette has shown a lot of physical toughness and a lot of heart to get to Heinz Field, but the Jayhawks will need more than they’ve mustered all year, not to mention a few more turnovers, to deny Mike Zmijanac another ring.
Listen to “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show,” brought to you by ROOT Sports and hosted by John Phillips, Saturday at 7:00 A.M., and keep reading the “Mr. High School Sports” blog for wall-to-wall coverage of the 2011 WPIAL Football Championships!
(Click here for our Class A preview.)
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)